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Book review: ‘Nick Clegg: the biography’ by Chris Bowers

UNDER Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrats stood against the Iraq war, did not want a replacement for Trident, opposed tuition fees, and favoured a 50p tax band for Britain’s highest earners.

I was not a Labour Party member in 2005, and while socialist principle precluded me from even considering support for a party with no connection to the organised working class, it was readily understandable why that particular set of policies appealed to many leftists rather more than what was on offer from Blair at the time.

Under Nick Clegg, the Lib Dems patently present a remarkably different sales pitch. When put to the test, not one single MP or peer voted against the formation of an austerity coalition with the Conservatives in 2010. So much for any pretence of somehow standing to the left of centre.

Chris Bowers’ account of the party’s latest leader – which is now over a year old now, but which I have only just read – offers a sympathetic exposition of what has altered in the interim.

It does a fair job of explaining the culture and recent history of the Liberal Democrats to those outside its ranks. But that said, Clegg is hardly a gift of a topic for any would-be political biographer.

By some irony of my self-devised book classification system, this volume sits on my shelves next to a couple of works outlining the life and times of David Lloyd George, the logic of that arrangement being that both can be considered under the loose heading ‘Liberal Party, leaders of’.

The Welsh Wizard was arguably the most entertaining of this country’s twentieth century premiers; he led Britain in world war one, was a womaniser on an epic scale, and oversaw the corruption of the honours system to a degree that even New Labour had to really struggle to match.

Clegg, by contrast, has done little that will prove of interest beyond the anorak milieu. We learn, for instance, that he once ate deep fried bees on a trip to China, and that he saw the late great blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan live prior to the latter’s untimely death, for which I am extremely jealous of him. Oh, and he once had a serious ski-ing accident.

Other than that, his role has been to serve as window dressing for a Cameron administration that has already made inroads into what little Thatcher and Blair have left standing of the post-war social democratic settlement, and which intends to go a lot further still in the direction of wiping it out.

The first two chapters outline Clegg’s fascinating ancestry, which includes a Russian noble slain by the Bolsheviks, a promiscuous double espionage agent and a captive in a Japanese prisoner of war camp.

But such colourful forebears hardly compensate for a bland petit bourgeois curriculum vitae that runs from home counties banker dad via prep school and public school, Oxbridge and policy wonk in Brussels, and inevitably on to MEP, MP and party leader.

Clegg, we are told, actually rang up Lib Dem headquarters to find out how quickly he could get a seat in Westminster prior even to joining the party.

While many activists were introduced to the delights of canvassing while still spotty but committed teenagers, the first campaign Clegg ever worked on was his own successful bid to get to Brussels in 1999, by which point he was thirtysomething and widely seen as going places.

Bowers goes on to document his rapid progress, from finally securing a seat in parliament in 2005 to becoming leader just two years later, and deputy prime minister three years after that.

But beyond the personal ambition, he fails to outline quite what makes the Lib Dem leader tick. The book is honest enough to contain some argument as to whether Clegg even qualifies as a liberal at all in the philosophical sense, but cannot bring itself to reach a conclusion on where he should be placed.

Simply to tell readers that he is pro-European, in favour of civil rights and anti-statist ultimately reveals little. Those same descriptions could apply to activists in all parties and none.

More could have been said about the man’s intellectual influences; those who would like to know what books Clegg has actually read, and what inspiration he has drawn from them, are left none the wiser.

Yes, ‘Nick Clegg: the biography’ is worth reading. However, it leaves open the question of whether its subject is worth more considered and detailed treatment, and what future the party he has taken to an 8% poll rating, neck and neck with UKIP, is likely to face.

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